Involve Religious Leaders in the Diplomatic Process
Involve Religious Leaders in the Diplomatic Process
Will There Be a Day After for Gaza?
Will There Be a Day After for Gaza?
Op-Ed / Middle East & North Africa 3 minutes

Involve Religious Leaders in the Diplomatic Process

The current Israeli-Palestinian negotiations – strangely so given that they are over the Holy Land -- involve only political leaders and largely ignore religion. Since talks began neither of the two national leaders – Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas – nor the US mediators has held public meetings with religious leaders, giving the impression of elitist disregard for the faith of millions. The odds of negotiations succeeding may not be high, but they would increase if these leaders replaced what some may perceive to be their anti-religious reflex with what German sociologist Jorgen Habermas termed a post-secular attitude. Religion is part of this conflict and cannot but be part of its resolution.

It is important not only that meetings with religious leaders take place, but that Israelis and Palestinians know of them. In their absence the process appears to be guided only by the concerns of the here-and-now, dry calculations of interest, which disregard culture and religion. This alienates the substantial number of believers among both Israelis and Palestinians instead of demonstrating respect for their values and beliefs.

The meetings should not be mere theatre.  They would have to go beyond photo-ops with religious leaders in colourful, exotic robes. They would need to be substantial, dealing head-on with the political obstacles for the resolution of the conflict. Indeed, mobilising this kind of support conceivably could facilitate compromise: for instance, it likely would be easier for the parties to address the controversial question of Jerusalem were prominent Jewish and Muslim leaders, together with Secretary Kerry, to call publicly for a shared Jerusalem.

Religious leaders, even the most genuine peace-seekers among them, would not agree to serve as a rubber stamp for compromises negotiated by political leaders. A genuine effort to reflect at least some of their religious tenets, values and beliefs would be necessary. For example, a preamble echoing, tacitly or otherwise, the principle of late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s ruling that conceding sovereignty is permissible to save lives could be helpful in securing popular support for territorial compromise. Counter-intuitive modalities suggested by religious figures to address religious needs in an agreement -- such as King Hussein’s idea of declaring that the Holy Esplanade is under divine sovereignty rather than that of either of the two parties -- should be carefully explored.

One reason that negotiators and mediators avoid religion is that they have no way to bring on board religious groups with seemingly maximalist aspirations, notably Islamist groups and Israel’s national religious community. As a recent Crisis Group policy report demonstrated, the latter has been largely absent from both secular and indeed religious attempts to resolve the conflict. Including them would be particularly challenging given the fact that their ideological core insists - unlike ultra-orthodox Jews - that the State of Israel’s territory should correspond precisely to that of the Land of Israel (in its contemporary definition as the land between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea). And yet, given their unmatched mobilization capacities and their ideological influence, ignoring them would be a mistake.

Attention to religious concerns in the substance of an agreement as well as its ratification and implementation mechanisms likely could win the support of some of this community and the post-facto acquiescence of others. Most significant for the agreement’s substance would be the kind and scope of cross-border rights, how the holy sites are managed, and the nature of post-settlement education in both societies. In terms of ratification, a Knesset or popular vote reflecting support of a Jewish majority would win the acquiescence of the vast majority of Israel’s national religious. A gradual implementation of settlement evacuation -- one which is conducted after alternative housing has already been built and while non-vital services are no longer provided to settlements not slated to remain under Israeli sovereignty -- could considerably reduce national religious resistance. These are clearly controversial modalities but they deserve consideration by those seeking an Israeli-Palestinian final status agreement which enjoys maximal legitimacy.

The task of including Israel’s national religious in peacemaking does not fall only upon the shoulders of political leaders and international mediators. Including them in inter-religious dialogue would be as significant. Crisis Group’s recent research showed that national religious leaders who dealt with political challenges as part of inter-religious dialogue usually became considerably more amenable to a final status agreement.

Including national religious leaders would require change from three parties: national religious leaders themselves, convenors of inter-religious dialogue and political leaders. National religious rabbinic leaders -- some of whom have internalised after the Disengagement that they must realistically engage with here-and-now issues if they want to best advance their own interests -- should take the opportunity of current diplomatic talks to desist from merely trying to spoil political efforts to reach a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and genuinely participate instead in inter-religious work to increase the chances of their success. And other religious leaders – Jewish and non-Jewish alike – should extend a hand to their hesitant, at times even hostile, colleagues and invite them to join inter-religious dialogue sessions, which unfortunately are rare nowadays.

It is high time for political leaders to realize that religion must be part of the conflict’s resolution, for those who shunned peacemaking efforts to sincerely give current efforts a try and for those experienced in inter-religious dialogue to bring on board those who to date have not participated in them. 

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